In 1984, a collection of the diaries and letters of Barbara Pym (pihm) was published by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym under the title A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters. In 1987, Holt edited a miscellany of Pym’s writings, Civil to Strangers, and Other Writings, that contained mostly fiction but some nonfiction.
Barbara Pym was a writer of distinctive qualities who, having suffered discouragement and neglect for fifteen years, was rediscovered toward the end of her life, to take her rightful place as a novelist of considerable originality and force. Often compared favorably with Jane Austen’s novels, Pym’s are essentially those of a private, solitary individual, employing precise social observation, understatement, and gentle irony in an oblique approach to such universal themes as the underlying loneliness and frustrations of life, culture as a force for corruption, love thwarted or satisfied, and the power of the ordinary to sustain and protect the men and women who shelter themselves under it. Also like Austen, Pym has no illusions about herself and very few about other people: “I like to think that what I write gives pleasure and makes my readers smile, even laugh. But my novels are by no means only comedies as I try to reflect life as I see it.”
The story of Pym’s early achievements, her long enforced silence, and her remarkable rediscovery perhaps says more about the publishing world than about either her books or her readers. Between 1949 and 1961, while working as an editorial assistant at the International African Institute, Pym wrote a novel every two years. As each manuscript was finished, she sent it off to Jonathan Cape. Her first six novels established her style, were well received by reviewers, and enjoyed a following among library borrowers. Excellent Women, her most popular novel, sold a little more than six thousand copies.
Then, in 1963, Pym put her seventh novel, An Unsuitable Attachment, in the mail. A short time later, it was returned: Times, she was told, had changed. The “swinging sixties” had no place for her gently ironic comedies about unconventional middle-class people leading outwardly uneventful lives. “Novels like An Unsuitable Attachment, despite their qualities, are getting increasingly difficult to sell,” wrote another publisher, while a third regretted that the novel was unsuitable for its list.
Being a woman of determination with a certain modest confidence in herself, Pym went to work on an eighth novel, The Sweet Dove Died; when she sent it off to Cape, however, it too came back. She adopted a pseudonym—“Tom Crampton”—because “it had a swinging air to it,” but twenty publishers turned down the novel. Humiliated and frustrated, she began to feel not...
Allen, Orphia Jane. Barbara Pym: Writing a Life. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1994. Part 1 discusses Pym’s life and work; part 2 analyzes her novels; part 3 examines different critical approaches to her work and provides a bibliographical essay; part 4 provides a comprehensive primary and secondary bibliography. An extremely useful volume for both beginning students and advanced scholars.
Benet, Diana. Something to Love: Barbara Pym’s Novels. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986. Benet’s fresh and insightful study examines Pym as “a chronicler of universal problems” whose focus—the many guises of love—moves, shapes, or disfigures all of her major characters. Includes an index.
Burkhart, Charles. The Pleasure of Miss Pym. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987. A very readable discussion of Pym’s life and autobiographical writings as well as her fiction through An Academic Question. Focuses on her worldview, the unique nature of her comedy, her religion, her place within the history of the novel, and her insights into man-woman relationships. Includes photographs and an index.
Cotsell, Michael. Barbara Pym. New York: Macmillan, 1989. A cogent examination of all Pym’s novels, paying particular attention to her characters’ thoughts and feelings. Cotsell judges the novels to be “unabashedly romantic” and considers Pym’s sense of language, her unpublished writings, and her creative process. Includes an index.